Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Mayakovsky

“He knows what needs to be done…”

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"The front door had been removed from its hinges..."

Note: This post is the thirty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 35. You can read the previous installments here.

A few days ago, I was browsing the shelves of my neighborhood thrift store when my eye was caught by a book called Alaska Bush Pilots in the Float Country. Its dust jacket reads: “The men who brought airplanes to Alaska’s Panhandle were a different breed: a little braver than the average pilot and blessed with the particular skills and set of nerves it requires to fly float planes, those Lockheed Vegas made of plywood that were held together by termites holding hands, as well as the sturdy Fairchild 71s and Bellanca Pacemakers.” And while this isn’t a title that might appeal to your average reader, I came very close to buying it—and I have a feeling that I will soon. Why? Like most writers, I’m constantly on the lookout for promising veins of material, and my inner spidey sense began to tingle as soon as I saw that cover. If I had to describe the kind of short stories I like to write, I’d call them plot-driven works of science fiction, usually staged against a colorful backdrop, and often with elements of horror. The Alaskan Panhandle in the early twenties seems like as good a setting as any for this kind of narrative, and that little book on bush pilots was visibly packed with more information than I would ever need to construct a novelette. Writers of a certain stripe come to treasure works of nonfiction that provide a narrow but deep slice of knowledge about a previously unexplored area, and finding that book automatically set me thinking about bush pilots in Alaska, even though the subject had never occurred to me before.

When you’re a writer, you often find yourself shaping the elements of a story, or even entire premises, based on the material that happens to be available. Constructing a plot of any kind is hard enough without having to squeeze useful color out of a bare handful of facts, and the richer and more abundant your source material, the better your chances of emerging with something good. Elsewhere, I’ve called this the availability factor, with a nod to a similar principle that W.I.B. Beveridge discusses in The Art of Scientific Investigation: “The great American bacteriologist Theobald Smith said that he always took up the problem that lay before him, chiefly because of the easy access of material, without which research is crippled.” The italics here are mine. Finding a promising source can mean the difference between a story that seems to write itself and one that never gets off the ground. As I’ve stated before, I often leaf through tattered science magazines in search of articles that might lead to an interesting combination of ideas. (And it isn’t enough to have just one. A good story almost always comes from the intersection of two or more.) But during the initial browsing stage, I’m not just looking for topics that pique my interest: I’m looking for articles of a certain length and density of detail. Within a few seconds, I can usually tell if the article will have enough of the raw goods to be worth revisiting, and I fold down that page before moving on.

"He knows what needs to be done..."

Of course, in most cases, you don’t end up using all of the material that a source provides: more often, you’re lucky to get a couple of tidbits that can be turned into the germ of a scene or plot point. Yet that doesn’t undermine the validity of this approach; if anything, it confirms it. I never tire of quoting the words of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky: “Poetry is like mining for radium. The output an ounce, the labor a year.” And good ore is more likely to yield those few useful fragments. Let’s say that one percent of what a writer reads while doing research ends up being used in the finished work—a fraction that is probably on the high side. You’re better off, then, if you learn to concentrate your reading on sources fruitful enough for that proportion to pay off in a meaningful way, and, even more usefully, to nudge the story in one direction or another based on the presence of existing material. If writing a story is like an excursion into unknown territory, there’s no harm in bending the path a little in order to pass through caches that previous explorers have left behind. And as with Alaskan Bush Pilots in the Float Country, the discovery of one especially dense, unexploited mine of ideas can be enough to encourage you to spend more time in one area, and maybe to even set up camp there for good. (Like a bush pilot, a consistently productive writer needs particular skills and a set of nerves, especially when the plot is held together by termites holding hands.)

In the case of Eternal Empire, I don’t think I would have taken the story into one important direction—Ilya’s excursion into Moldova—if I hadn’t stumbled across the book Siberian Education by Nicolai Lilin. As a work of nonfiction, Lilin’s memoir has been questioned, and even while reading it for the first time, I found it hard to shake the nagging sense that it was too tidy to be real. (It was a little like the “exercise in counterintelligence” that Norman Mailer describes in the afterword to Harlot’s Ghost, as the researcher learns “to penetrate the obfuscations, cover-ups, evasions, and misapprehensions” of a dubious work.) But much of the detail, when separated from its autobiographical substrate, was convincing, and there was so much worth preserving that I deliberately bent Ilya’s path across Europe to take advantage of it. A few of the details, notably the idea of the symbolic objects that thieves use to send coded messages, ended up being important to the plot. But there was so much else that I liked that I essentially invented Chapter 35 as a kind of clearinghouse to hold it all. The pigeons on the old man’s rooftop; the door taken off its hinges, indicating that all are free to enter the house; the slightly stooped posture of a former convict used to knocking his head on the bunk above; the elaborate way the thieves make tea; how they pass a shared cigarette back and forth; all of this is taken from Lilin, and it added a lot of flavor to what was otherwise a purely functional scene. As a writer, you learn not to spurn such gifts. And taking any novel to completion is an education in itself…

The availability factor

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Theobald Smith

Whenever I do a reading from The Icon Thief, I like to joke that I wrote a novel about the Rosicrucians mostly because they were available. Other conspiracy thrillers had already sucked most of the pulp out of the likes of the Freemasons, the Illuminati, and the Priory of Sion, and although the Rosicrucian novel was a genre of its own as late as the nineteenth century, there hadn’t been any examples of it in a long time. There was also a huge amount of material—not all of it particularly interesting—on Rosicrucianism and its relationship to later occult and artistic movements, so I knew early on that I’d have my choice of sources. And I suspect that if I’d done some digging and discovered that there wasn’t much there, I would have chosen a different subject entirely. The shape of that novel, in short, was largely determined by the access I had to the resources I needed: I knew before I even began laying out the plot that I wouldn’t suffer for lack of background. The same is true of many of my short stories, the majority of which were inspired by an existing book or article that offered up an abundance of useful, concrete ideas. In many cases, the plot was explicitly tailored around the facts that I had at my disposal, and if I ended up focusing on one area rather than others, it was because of the tools I happened to have at hand.

The question of availability—or, more specifically, of whether or not you have a reasonable expectation of finding the materials you need—governs a surprising amount of creative work, both in the arts and in other fields. In The Art of Scientific Investigation, W.I.B. Beveridge tells us: “The great American bacteriologist Theobald Smith said that he always took up the problem that lay before him, chiefly because of the easy access of material, without which research is crippled.” It’s a strategy that has affinities with bricolage, or the art of making do with whatever is lying around, and it also reflects the sifting and filtering process required to distill any body of information into a readable form. (“The output an ounce, the labor a year,” as Mayakovsky says, and it only works if you have plenty of ore in the first place.) There seems to be a critical mass you need to reach before you can start serious work on any project, and although much of it has to be spun out of the creator’s own substance, like Whitman’s noiseless patient spider, it doesn’t hurt to have a ready reservoir of ideas from the outside world. Making anything worthwhile is hard enough as it is, so it helps to know from the start that you have access to a decent body of material. And this can come from the details of your own life as much as from anything else: “Write what you know” is less an admonition from up on high than a practical guideline for ensuring that you have enough with which to proceed.

Robert Scott Root-Bernstein

Of course, there are risks to this approach, since it can lead to an excessive focus on the obvious. In his valuable book Discovering, Robert Scott Root-Bernstein writes:

Where does one find problems? Not where answers already exist. There is an old story about a drunk who loses his key in a dark alley. A policeman wandering by later finds the drunk on his hands and knees under the street lamp at the corner. “Hey! What are you doing there?” “Looking for my key.” “Where’d ya lose it?” “In the alley.” “Then why are you looking under the lamp?” “It’s too dark to see in the alley.” Like the drunk, too many scientists choose their research projects within the sphere of existing light. They are scared to be ignorant, scared to founder. They are what Peter Medawar calls “philagnoists”—lovers of their own ignorance. Not so the best scientists, who seek out the unknown. Peter Carruthers, head of theoretical physics at Los Alamos, speaks for many when he says: “There’s a special tension to people who are constantly in the position of making new knowledge. You’re always out of equilibrium. When I was young, I was deeply troubled by this. Finally, I realized that if I understood too clearly what I was doing, where I was going, then I probably wasn’t working on anything very interesting.” Don’t be paranoid of the void.

Later on, Root-Bernstein adds: “There will be a crowd searching under the light. If you assume that keys to understanding nature are fairly randomly spread about, your chances of finding one are much better out in the dark because you’re likely to be the only one searching there.” The problem, then, is how to reconcile this with the availability factor, and as with most aspects of the creative process, the key lies in striking a balance: the excursions we make into the unknown are most likely to succeed if we’ve tethered ourself to a stable body of known facts, particularly if it happens to border an area of darkness. And such islands of material are more common than you might think. As a writer, I’ve learned to focus on information that is available but obscure: the world is full of ideas or subjects that have been explored up to a point and then abandoned, or relegated to a forgotten corner of intellectual history. It’s why I’ve made a point of seeking out the books that nobody reads anymore, or using a single idea as a wedge to pry my way into a body of knowledge that I wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t been looking for it. Again and again, I’ve been amazed to find ideas that were neglected, or known only to specialists, that provided a foundation for fascinating stories. It’s a big world out there, and not every lamp has a crowd beneath it. If half of being a writer is knowing where the lamps are, and being able to recognize one when you see it, the other half lies in pushing past that circle of illumination into the shadows. And you’ll have better luck if you move from the light into the dark, or the other way around, than if you focus solely on one or the other.

The poet’s paperwork

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Peter De Vries

There’s a famous quotation, attributed to the humorist Peter De Vries, that sums up how a lot of aspiring writers feel about their chosen craft: “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” In fact, it’s really a line from one of De Vries’s many novels, and the punchline is that it’s credited to a character making a list of clever observations in preparation for the interviews he’ll give after he writes a bestseller:

Standing at the window with his hands in his pockets, Mopworth had a vision of the day when he would be interviewed by the press on the publication of his book. He had some mots all ready. “What I hate about writing is the paperwork.” And: “A writer is like the pencil he uses. He must be worn down to be kept sharp.”

It’s a little amusing to see how the line mutated and detached itself from the underlying story to become exactly the kind of pithy remark that it was intended to satirize. De Vries was a shrewd writer in his own right, and he captures the feel of a writing aphorism so well that it transformed itself into the real thing. And most of those who quote it probably don’t realize that it’s poking gentle fun at the whole notion of canned writing wisdom.

Still, if the line remains so popular, it’s in part because it’s the kind of quote that comes dangerously close to vindicating those who love the idea of being a writer, but don’t much care for the actual writing. (As Martin Sheen says to DiCaprio in The Departed: “Do you want to be a cop, or do you want to appear to be a cop? It’s an honest question. A lot of guys just want to appear to be cops.”) But there’s a grain of truth to it. Anyone who sits down to write a story of any length soon realizes that he’s spending most of his time on work that he doesn’t particularly feel like doing for its own sake. Research can be fun at the beginning, but it quickly turns into a laborious hunt for useful material, or into a futile search for the one scrap of information you need. Outlining is a pain, especially if you’re doing it right: you find yourself asking boring questions like “What does the protagonist want?” and “What is this scene about?” when you’d rather just jump into the story. Even after you start writing the first draft, you find that it’s frequently hellish, too—or, at best, a daily uphill climb in the face of the morning’s crippling doubt. Revision, which writers like Toni Morrison have called the best part of the process, all too often turns into a scramble to put out countless fires, with each problem opening up into a dozen more. And then, if you’re lucky, you get notes.

Vladimir Mayakovsky

In fact, after years of writing, I’d say that there are only three parts of the process that give me undiluted pleasure: 1) The moments of inspiration when I come up with an idea better than anything I could have consciously invented. 2) The early stages of research, when I’m learning about a new subject or exploring a location without any thought to the story itself. 3) The very last stages of revision, when the story is already more or less finished, I like what I’ve got, and I’m just looking for ways to make it better. The first category accounts for maybe one percent of my total writing time; the second, about ten percent; and the third, something like five percent. Add them all together and round up the total, and I find that I’m happy while writing about a fifth of the time. The rest ranges from long stretches when I’m not actively unhappy, but grinding out material in a mechanical way, to moments when I’m ready to pack it in with frustration. And if there’s a pattern here, it’s that I’m happiest as a writer when I’m most outside myself. A flash of intuition, absorption in research, or the detached revision of a story that might have been written by someone else: these are all times when I’ve escaped my personality. Otherwise, I’m stuck in my own head, and when you’re just trying to fill a blank page, that isn’t a fun place to be.

Yet I keep at it, primarily because the eighty percent of the time I spend in a state of tedium or existential despair enables the twenty percent that I love. And I wouldn’t be doing this at all if that didn’t strike me, in the end, as a fair trade. Over the last ten years of my writing life, the moments of inspiration, set end to end, could fit into the space of an hour, but they made the rest of it worthwhile. I never tire of quoting the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who compared the act of writing poetry to mining for radium: “The output an ounce, the labor a year.” And it’s the paperwork that makes the poetry. Those who can’t endure it will never know how it feels when months of preparation crystalize into a few seconds of insight. And although such ideas feel as if they’ve come from the outside, they’re really the result of all the labor that came before, just as the eureka moments in science only come to those who have spent years thinking about specific problems. A writer is a little like a novice who comes to a monastery seeking enlightenment, only to find that most of his time there is spent sweeping the floor and cleaning out the toilets. The one can’t exist without the other, and trying to live in a way that is nothing but the former is bound to end in failure. Nobody, not even the most productive or successful among us, can really stand the paperwork. But it’s the work that makes the paper possible.

Written by nevalalee

August 5, 2015 at 8:47 am

My life as a paleontologist

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Concept art for Jurassic World

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve only ever wanted two jobs in my life: paleontologist and novelist. And the fact that I gave up the former goal around the time I turned ten years old doesn’t mean that I don’t look back on it with nostalgia. Reading the paleontologist Stephen Brusatte’s affectionate piece on The Conversation on the appeal of Jurassic World, I felt an odd twinge of regret for a life never led. Brusatte is actually a bit younger than I am—he was nine when Jurassic Park came out, while I was thirteen—and his article is a reminder that the world is still turning out freshly minted paleontologists, most of whom are distinguished by the fact that they held onto that initial spark of curiosity after the rest of us moved on. Jurassic Park, both as a book and as a movie, was responsible for countless careers in the field, just as Star Trek was for the hard sciences and Indiana Jones was for archaeology, but such works can more accurately be seen as igniting something that was already there, or providing an avenue for a certain kind of personality. Everyone knows how it feels to be excited by a book or movie into the prospect of an exotic career; the difference between real paleontologists and the rest of us is that the urge never faded. If there’s one thing you know when you meet a novelist or a paleontologist, it’s that you’re looking at the systematic working out in adulthood of a childhood dream.

Yet the two fields also have a surprising amount in common. In the beginning, both are fundamentally choices about what to spend your time thinking about: when you’re in grade school, you can’t think of anything better to occupy your time than dinosaurs. Later, as your understanding of the subject expands, it becomes slightly more subtle, if no less vast. At its heart, paleontology is the methodical reconstruction of facts that used to be obvious. Few things would have felt less equivocal at the time than a living triceratops—Jack Horner has called them “the cows of the Cretaceous”— but understanding and rediscovering such animals now requires the assemblage of countless tiny, almost invisible details, both in the world and in the mind. Fiction, in turn, is the creation of the obvious, or inevitable, from the small and easily missed. The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky once compared the act of writing to mining for radium: “The output an ounce, the labor a year.” Both fiction and paleontology require that we sift through a huge amount of material in search for a few useful fragments. The difference is that the writer generates his own dirt and then sorts through it. But in both cases, the trick lies in identifying a promising tract of ground in the first place.

Concept art for Jurassic World

Both are also about developing a way of seeing. The evolutionary anthropologist Elwyn Simons has compared the hunt for fossils in the jumbled rock of the Egyptian desert to the ability to find a single rare word in a mass of text, and both fields depend on refining the observer’s eye. Even more important, perhaps, is the ability to see facts in their larger context, while valuing the significance that each detail carries in themselves. One of the first things any writer learns is how crucial a glance, a gesture, or a single image can be: each element deserves as loving a consideration as we can give it. But it also needs to be subordinated to the overall effect. This kind of double vision, in which a stone or bone fragment is granted intense meaning in itself while occupying a place in the larger pattern, is central to all of science. Both are characterized by a constant oscillation between the concrete and the abstract, with the most ingenious theoretical constructs grounded in an engagement with the tangible and particular. Every insight is built on backbreaking labor, and the process itself becomes part of the point. Genuine discoveries are infrequent, so in the meantime, you have the field and the lab, and the workers who survive are the ones who come to love the search for its own sake.

So I’d like to think that if I’d become a paleontologist instead of a writer, my inner life would be more or less the same, even if its externals were very different. (If nothing else, I’d have gone outdoors occasionally.) But even then, I suspect that I’d spend about the same amount of time in my own head. As Stephen Jay Gould writes:

No geologist worth anything is permanently bound to a desk or laboratory, but the charming notion that true science can only be based on unbiased observation of nature in the raw is mythology. Creative work, in geology and anywhere else, is interaction and synthesis: half-baked ideas from a barroom, rocks in the field, chains of thought from lonely walks, numbers squeezed from rocks in a laboratory, numbers from a calculator riveted to a desk, fancy equipment usually malfunctioning on expensive ships, cheap equipment in the human cranium, arguments before a roadcut.

Which all circles back to the point with which I started: that life is ultimately a choice about what to think about. Last year, I finally realized my destiny by writing about dinosaurs for the first time, in my short story “Cryptids.” Even if it isn’t my strongest work—and I still think the ending could be better—it felt like a homecoming of sorts. I got to think about dinosaurs again. And I don’t know what more I could ever want.

Written by nevalalee

June 17, 2015 at 9:50 am

Disquiet on the set

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Touch of Evil

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What movie scene would you have wanted to be on set for?

“The most exciting day of your life may well be your first day on a movie set,” William Goldman writes in Adventures in the Screen Trade, “and the dullest days will be all those that follow.” Which isn’t to say that filmmaking is more boring than any other kind of creative work. Vladimir Mayakovsky once compared the act of writing poetry to mining for radium—”The output an ounce, the labor a year”—and that’s more or less true of every art form. Moments of genuine excitement are few and far between; the bulk of an artist’s time is spent laying pipe and fixing the small, tedious, occasionally absorbing problems that arise from an hour of manic inspiration that occurred weeks or months before. What sets the movies apart is that their tedium is shared and very expensive, which makes it even less bearable. If star directors have an annoying habit of comparing themselves to generals, perhaps it’s because war and moviemaking have exactly one thing in common: they consist of hours of utter boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. (You could argue that the strange career of Werner Herzog can be explained by his determination to drive that boredom away, or at least to elevate the terror level as much as possible while still remaining insurable.)

In general, there are excellent reasons for members of the creative team who aren’t directly involved in the production process to keep away. Screenwriters don’t like being around the filming because it’s all to easy to get caught up in disputes between the actors and director, or to be asked to work for free. Editors like Walter Murch make a point of never visiting the set, because they need to view the resulting footage as objectively as possible: each piece has to be judged on its own terms, and it’s hard to cut something when you know how hard it was to get the shot. And while a serious film critic might benefit from firsthand knowledge of how movies are made, for most viewers, it’s unclear if that experience would add more than it detracts. The recent proliferation of special features on home video has been a mixed blessing: it can be fascinating to observe filmmakers at work, especially in departments like editing or sound that rarely receive much attention, but it can also detach us from the result. I’ve watched the featurettes on my copy of the Lord of the Rings trilogy so many times that I’ve started to think of the movies themselves almost as appendages to the process of their own making, which I’m sure isn’t what Peter Jackson would have wanted.

Touch of Evil

And a thrilling movie doesn’t necessarily make for a thrilling set, any more than a fun shoot is likely to result in anything better than Ocean’s 13. Contrary to what movies like Hitchcock or The Girl might have us think, I imagine that for most of the cast and crew, working on Psycho or The Birds must have been a little dull: Hitchcock famously thought that the creative work was essentially done once the screenplay was finished, and the act of shooting was just a way of translating the script and storyboards into something an audience would pay to see. (So much of Hitchcock’s own personality—the drollery, the black humor, the pranks—seems to have emerged as a way of leavening the coldly mechanical approach his philosophy as a director demanded.) Godard says that every cut is a lie, but it’s also a sigh: a moment of resignation as the action halts for the next setup, with each splice concealing hours of laborious work. The popularity of long tracking shots is partially a response to the development of digital video and the Steadicam, but it’s also a way of bringing filmmaking closer to the excitement of theater. I didn’t much care for Birdman, but I can imagine that it must have been an exceptionally interesting shoot: extended takes create a consciousness of risk, along with a host of technical problems that need to be solved, that doesn’t exist when film runs through the camera for only a few seconds at a time.

Filmmaking is most interesting as a spectator sport when that level of risk, which is always present as an undertone, rises in a moment of shared awareness, with everyone from the cinematographer to the best boy silently holding his or her breath. There’s more of this risk when movies are shot on celluloid, since the cost of a mistake can be calculated by the foot: Greta Gerwig, in the documentary Side by Side, talks about how seriously everyone takes it when there’s physical film, rather than video, rolling through the camera. There’s more risk on location than in the studio. And the risk is greatest of all when the scene in question is a crucial one, rather than a throwaway. Given all that, I can’t imagine a more riveting night on the set than the shooting of the opening of Touch of Evil: shot on celluloid, on location, using a crane and a camera the size of a motorcycle, with manual focusing, on a modest budget, and built around a technical challenge that can’t be separated from the ticking bomb of the narrative itself. The story goes that it took all night to get right, mostly because one actor kept blowing his lines, and the the shot we see in the movie was the last take of all, captured just as the sun was rising. It all seems blessedly right, but it must have been charged with tension—which is exactly the effect it has on the rest of the movie. And you don’t need to have been there to appreciate it.

What is poetry like?

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Vladimir Mayakovsky

Poetry is like mining for radium. The output an ounce, the labor a year.

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of a joke, you’ve lost the whole thing.

W.S. Merwin

Your teacher says that poetry is like an exquisite and towering pagoda that appears at the snap of the fingers or like the twelve towers of the five cities of the immortals that ephemerally exist at the edge of heaven. I do not agree. To use a metaphor, poetry is like building a house out of tiles, glazed bricks, wood, and stone—he must put them all together, one by one, on solid ground.

Shih Jun-chang

Wallace Stevens

Poetry is like prayer in that it is most effective in solitude and in the times of solitude, as, for example, in earliest morning.

Wallace Stevens

Poetry is like a panther: it delights the eye; but against any attempt to enslave it, it may wreak revenge.

Walter Kaufmann

Many a fair precept in poetry is like a seeming demonstration in the mathematics, very specious in the diagram, but failing in the mechanic operation.

John Dryden

Nicholson Baker

Poetry is like math or chess or music—it requires a slightly freaky misshapen brain, and those kinds of brains don’t last.

Nicholson Baker

Writing a poem is like getting a short-term contract from God. You get this one done and if you do a good job, then maybe another contract will come along.

David Bottoms

Writing poetry is like writing history—talent, learning, and understanding in suitable proportion.

Yuan Mei

P.D. James

Poetry is like religion: sometimes the vision is immediate and almost frightening in its intensity; sometimes it is reached with difficulty, giving intimations only, and those confused and partial.

P.D. James

Writing a poem is like solving for X in an equation.

—Attributed to W.H. Auden by Robert Earl Hayden

Poetry is like being alive twice.

Robert Hass

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